Eltham and it’s beginnings……
Eltham village is in the centre of what was once a vast sub-tropical rainforest known then as the ‘Big Scrub”, which extended from the Tuckean Swamp to the Richmond Range & from the Wilsons River & Leycester Creek almost to the sea. The Bundjalung people, who had lived around the ‘Big Scrub’ area prior to white settlement, collected many of their essential items, such as berries, nuts, eggs, birds, reptiles & small marsupials, from within the forest. They apparently, over thousands of years, cleared small areas within the forest where they camped rather than staying over-night within the dense jungle-like forest, which was made up of large trees, such as Fig, Booyong, Redwood, Cedar, Teak, Beech, Bush-nut (Macadamia) & Bean etc., laced with lawyer vines & epiphytes, such as crows nests, elkhorns, staghorns & orchards as well as harbouring a lower canopy of fern trees & palms. The floor of the forest was covered with leaves (much of which had decomposed to enrich the fertile red volcanic soil). The small cleared areas were gradually grassed over & were called, by the early white pioneer settlers, such names as Cowlong Grass, Midgee Grass, Lagoon Grass etc.
Lured by the giant cedars reported by Captain Henry Rous, in the Rainbow, in 1828, along the banks of the Richmond River, the Cedar Cutters arrived in the early forties. At the same time pioneer settlers moved on to the open plains & river flats that surrounded the ‘Big Scrub’ & soon the population increased. However the Robinson Land Act of 1861 encouraged still further settlers to the area so that by the 1880s the rich volcanic soil within the forest was being opened up for both crop production (sugarcane & maize) & dairy farming.
Midgee Grass, later to be called Mayfield & finally Eltham, which lies about 13 km North East of Lismore, was one of many small settlements to emerge within the ‘Big Scrub’. From a marriage certificate of 1853 it appears that there were settlers along Wilsons Creek, at what is now called Eltham, in the early 1850s. Eltham took its name from the S.E. London suburb of the same name. There are towns called Eltham in Canada, N.Z. & Victoria.
The cedar & other forest logs were floated down to Boatharbour, at the junction of the Wilsons & Coopers Creeks, (near Bexhill), where they were loaded onto boats for transport on to Sydney or to local sawmills. However, as the cedar along Wilsons & Pearces Creeks was cleared, the cedar-cutters cleared tracks into the ‘Big Scrub’, & so the clearing of the forest gradually took place with the aid of the early farmers, until, within 50 to 80 years less than 5% of the forest remained.
Midgee Grass was used by the Cedar-cutters & other early settlers (squatters etc) as a camp site. However, in 1878, Christopher Hetherington selected 640 acres (a square mile) of land, which he called Laureldale, while the land where Eltham now stands was originally selected by Malcolm Shaw, as a conditional purchase in the late 1870s. It was then passed on to Sir Thomas Ewing, a surveyor, who, in turn, sold it to William Walmsley in 1884. Except for the 60 acres called Midgee Grass it was covered with dense scrub. Other early settlers around ‘Eltham’ were: David Paine, Frederick Chadwick, W.H.Gray, Richard Dawes, Edward & Chas. Johnston, S.E.Bryant, Edward Lavis, Geo. Pearson, Alfred Gordon, William Alexander, Samuel Trimble, David Butt & John Newberry.
Before the turn of the century Eltham & many other small villages & communities developed within the ‘Big Scrub’ area. As the forest was cleared, pastures were established & crops (maize, fruit trees etc) were planted. Dairying, for butter, then became possible. Butter factories, blacksmith shops, schools, hotels, butcheries, Post Offices, General Stores, Public Halls, Railway Lines & Stations, sporting fields, churches & various societies were established throughout the Eltham Valley.
Sawmills and Cedar getters.
Small sawmills appeared from the 1860s, followed by cream separators in the 1880s (William Walmsley introduced the first one in 1886) & a butter-making plant (W.H.Gray in the 1890s). In 1887 a traffic bridge was built over Wilsons Creek at Eltham. William Walmsley made available, at no cost, land for public buildings as well as the railway station, a general store was built in 1890, Mail Receiving Office was opened in October, 1891, followed by the Hotel in 1892. The Lismore to Mullumbimby section of the railway line opened in January, 1894. The first public hall , the Jubilee Hall, was completed in 1898 & named in honour of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in the previous year. In the same year St Marks Anglican Church was built & dedicated to God’s Service at a service performed by Bishop Green, the Bishop of Armidale (the land & timber for the church were donated by William Walmsley). The Eltham Public School (originally called Cowlong Public School) was established on Boatharbour Road in 1884, as a part-time school with Pearces Creek.
Christopher Hetherington, of Laureldale, was a keen sportsman. He was interested in horse-racing & althetics, which led him to build a race course on his property in the 1890s. In the early 1900s Eltham was well known for its Gaslight Handicap which attracted competitors from near & far. Horse riding, horse racing, athletics & cricket matches were played in the area behind the hotel.
Eltham was for many years popular for its calf sales conducted by three different auctioning companies. From 1907 Eltham had a very strong Manchester Unity Lodge, which had over 300 members (one of the largest country MUIOOF lodges in NSW) prior to the introduction of Medicare.
By 1910 Freemason Lodges had been established in Lismore, Alstonville, Ballina, Bangalow & other larger centers with the Richmond Valley to which local men from Eltham & nearby communities became associated.